The Saudis have been less than pleased — to say the least — with Obama administration policies they believe have made a mess of the Middle East. And they're eager to vent their displeasure face-to-face.
Meanwhile, Obama is under pressure from lawmakers and activists at home to highlight Saudi Arabia's appalling human rights record in his meetings with the 89-year-old king -- something certain to make the visit even more painful.
Obama arrives in Riyadh as relations between the two countries are at their lowest point in decades because of the president's quixotic efforts in the Middle East that have hurt both U.S. and Saudi interests:
-- The administration's outreach to Iran that has left the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs in the cold along with Israel because Obama's single-minded pursuit of an elusive nuclear deal in exchange for sanctions relief ignores Iran's very real efforts at subversion and terrorism in their countries.
-- Obama's failure to deal effectively with civil war in Syria, which has fueled the growth of militant Islamism, threatening both Saudi Arabia and the United States.
-- The administration's apathetic response to the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood government that replaced him. The Muslim Brotherhood is the ideological godfather of al Qaeda and a bitter enemy of the Saudi regime, which supports the crackdown by Egypt's current military government.
Among those he's likely to face is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief and former ambassador in Washington. Hussain Abdul-Hussain reports for our sister publication, The Weekly Standard, that Bandar's return from what was speculated to be a U.S.-influenced sidelining isn't good news for Obama:
For the Obama administration, Bandar, a former Washington power player and Bush family confidante, is a thorn in its side. First, he’s been publicly critical of White House policy, frequently leaking anti-Obama tidbits to the U.S. press. He’s also reached out to Vladimir Putin in an effort to buy arms from the Russians — and show up the White House. Speculation in Saudi circles is that the last straw was when Secretary of State John Kerry requested a meeting with him during a trip to Riyadh only to be told that since Bandar was on his way out of town that they meet at the airport. From the administration’s perspective, the problem with U.S.-Saudi relations isn’t the White House’s and Riyadh’s diverging regional policies, but Bandar himself. The White House allegedly pushed to have Bandar put on administrative leave, and suddenly the man who had revived Riyadh’s Syria policy was out of the headlines.
To make matters worse, Obama's under pressure to address human rights issues arising from Saudi Arabia's strict form of Islamic rule. A bipartisan group of 70 lawmakers have signed a March 20 letter urging him to meet with women activists during his trip and press the Saudis on religious freedom.
There's also the issue of Michael Wilner, Washington bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post, the only White House reporter denied a visa by the Saudis to cover the trip. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Tuesday that the White House would continue to raise concerns about the issue with the Saudis, but it won't be allowed to interfere with the trip.
"We have disagreements with Saudi Arabia on a number of issues. We obviously have had disagreements in the past as it relates to some issues associated with Israel, some issues associated with human rights," he said. "But we also share a significant set of interests with Saudi Arabia. They’re a very important partner of ours in the Gulf, and we believe it's better to have the type of relationship where we can cooperate but also be clear and honest with one another where we have differences."